Haru packed her things and headed home two days later, just as she’d promised. She made it a point to call her housekeeper, and to clean the apartment one last time, so that the two of them could wait in the quiet until there was a knock that only Haru could recognize. Any time she asked about Sae, or the calling card, or Akira, or if Makoto was at all okay, Makoto gently dismissed her with a nod, hunched over her schoolwork with Buchimaru in her lap. Makoto had taken to it far more than usual over the past couple of days, and it seemed Haru had learned not to question it. She only sat opposite Makoto, cradling one last cup of tea with her phone at her side.
“I’m glad things are starting to look up,” she ventured to say. “I believe we’ll need that.”
“You and me both,” Makoto mumbled.
“Will you be all right tonight?”
Makoto didn’t answer.
She looked up; Haru was watching her with a worried expression. “Sorry,” she said. “I suppose I’m just… tense.”
Haru sighed softly, and reached forward to cover Makoto’s hand with hers. “For whose sake, I wonder…”
The trust of it was, the closer time crawled to the eighteenth of the month—tomorrow—the closer Makoto got to an edge she couldn’t quite feel out. Maybe this was everything Haru had felt a couple of months back. Or everything she should have felt once they’d taken Kaneshiro down. She’d been so sure of herself back then, so confident. The power of it all had to be wearing out by now—had to have taken the deepest plunge when Haru’s father died.
This wasn’t the sort of thing she could have written back to her mother about. She hadn’t even tried again since she’d opened the letter, and now she actually had every reason to.
What was she doing? Where had she gone? And why was life so freakishly good at being a cycle of questions and snatching up every feeling she needed right when she needed it?
Haru gave her hand a gentle squeeze and sipped the rest of her tea. “At the very least,” she murmured, “don’t worry too much about me. I know what I need to do. I believe you do, too.”
“You’ve got quite the vote of confidence in me,” Makoto said, wishing she didn’t sound half-dead.
Haru only offered her a smile. “As well I should.”
The housekeeper didn’t come until evening had turned over into night, with an odd pattern of a knock that she and Haru must have agreed upon over the phone. Haru let her in without a hitch, introduced her to Makoto, and gathered up her belongings. Within moments they were gone into the night, with promises of frequent updates by text and genuine, well-meaning smiles. The kind that stuck with Makoto as she turned her phone over and over in her hand and pored over blank papers.
It wasn’t as though she didn’t want to write back. She just had too many things to say, and none of the right words to say them. At this point, she was better off reading those advice books for fun. Or, at the very least, mockingly texting random chapter titles to Akira to see if any of them were worth their salt.
She was just about to get there when Sae stepped in, slinging her bag to the floor and fluffing out her hair. Without a word, she looked around, as though listening for something, then stood back on her heels as her eyes landed on Makoto. “She’s gone,” she said. Presumed. Not even a hello. Not even an I’m home.
Makoto could only nod dumbly at first. “She wanted to wait to say goodbye properly, but didn’t want to be out too late. She left you a thank-you note on the kitchen table.”
“Charming.” Sae wrinkled her nose. “She’d best know the sort of trouble she’d been dancing around.”
Makoto bristled, for more reasons than one. “I think she’s fairly aware.”
If Sae noticed the coldness in her tone, she didn’t remark on it. In fact, she didn’t say much of anything. Instead, she fixed herself some leftovers from what Makoto had made, and took a seat nearby, casework out within seconds. Makoto didn’t ask about it.
It was almost like when they were kids again. Or, well, when she was a kid, and Sae was in high school. When she was learning and practicing how to study, and Sae was trying to put it all to good use between cram school and after-school activities and being the upstanding daughter of, as far as they believed, one of the best officers in the country. Probably because it was exactly what Sae had going for her. Probably because it was all Sae had going for her. Maybe it was better for Makoto not to think about how she went on less with more to lose. They were at each other’s throats, something worse than the usual tête-à-tête, as it stood.
“I…” The word was dry in Makoto’s mouth, and she had to clear her throat—partly for herself and partly for Sae’s attention, even if that attention was little more than a raised eyebrow. “I opened the letter.”
It was a wonder Sae paused at all. “Is that so,” she said, and punctuated it with a mouthful of rice. Which, really, was better than nothing. The most Makoto had expected was a hum. Or a grunt. “Then it seems you were ready after all.”
“I decided when I was.” She could at least claim that. Even if part of it had been a partner’s advice and yet another part had been sheer desperation—small, but present. She got to her feet, taking care to make herself as known as possible on her way to her room.
“Going to study?” Sae called after her.
“Something like that.” Makoto stopped in the doorway, grip on the knob tightening with each passing moment. “Also, I’ve been thinking.”
“I would hope so.”
“I’d like to borrow the car tomorrow afternoon.”
In the end, it was a surprise that Sae had given her permission—or, rather, left her the car keys on top of a sticky note that only said, Say hello, and don’t stay out too late. It had only been a few months since she’d gotten her driver’s license, and yet another miracle that she’d had time to sit for classes and the written exam. But the drives made it worth it. The grip of her hands at ten and two, the window cracked up just enough to ruffle her hair without making too much of a mess, the engine buzzing through her whole body. She’d wanted to feel it for as long as she could remember. She had, she thought, but perhaps it was only Johanna, barely dormant and begging to come alive the more Makoto lived.
She’d wanted her father to teach her. About the difference between the ease of sixty kilometers an hour and the rush of a hundred. About signals and high beams and how she could make a machine rev to life with the turn of a key.
She wanted to take him to the beach.
She’d wanted to take him back here.
Her father hadn’t said anything about living out days that didn’t—couldn’t—exist. Only the ones that already had.
“So, where are you taking me?”
Maybe that was the reason Sae had agreed. Because Makoto had said something about a passenger. She simply hadn’t said anything about who the passenger was.
She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, focused instead on the click of the turn signal as she switched lanes. “You’ll see when we arrive,” she said. “Consider it an exercise in trust.”
Of course, that wasn’t to say she didn’t consider taking Akira along with her sometimes. She dreamt about it, in fact. Just the one time. Maybe it wasn’t entirely special, but the trip to the planetarium had gotten her thinking, every so often, about driving out past the city and seeing the stars for real. Not those projected pinpricks with a swell of orchestra and a booming voice narrating the constellations and the inevitable heat death of the universe. No, it was more like… a flannel blanket on the hood of the car, and the radio playing softly behind them, and the gentle cadence of Akira’s voice when he told her he could see the same stars back home. A drive-in theater all their own.
He missed home sometimes, he’d said. Not the people. The place.
Maybe she would take him there someday. Or maybe they would make their own.
She dreamt about that, too. Just the one time.
She still cursed herself occasionally for telling him what Sae thought of husbands. Not because it was bad advice, but because it had given her license to entertain the thought at all.
She snapped back to herself, tapped her pocket twice, stole a glance or three at Akira when the road cleared up a little more. Surprisingly, he wasn’t looking at her. He had his chin on his knuckles, fingers curled delicately inward as he stared out the window at the low-hanging sun. When he sighed, it seemed to be with the exhaustion of the day, and perhaps the anticipation of the next one.
He looked beautiful, for all his conflict. The mess of hair, the glint of his glasses, the slight part of his lips and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyebrows that she wanted to kiss away, just on the shoulder of the road.
Instead she held the steering wheel in one hand, and dared to slip the other in his.
“I’m surprised you’d want to go for a drive today of all days,” he finally said, soft but deep enough that she felt it in her chest.
Makoto risked another look, flipped her visor, rested her hand on his again. “Because it’s a school night?”
Her throat went dry. Even the earlier meeting had done little to reassure her. “I left it in our mailbox before we left,” she said. “She’ll find it when she gets home.” She didn’t tell him about how her hands shook so much she almost dropped the card twice, how many times she must have looked over her shoulder. How she snatched up the car keys and speed-walked out of the apartment building like her life depended on it.
“Ah.” The way he spoke made it sound like if he didn’t know any better, he’d think Makoto didn’t want to be home for its discovery. He’d be half-right, but only half. “How… are you feeling?”
“I did it,” was her solemn answer as she turned onto the next exit, felt the drag of seventy-five and pushed it to eighty in the middle lane.
Out of the corner of her eye, Akira sat up just a little straighter when she finally slowed and pulled into a parking lot beside a large plot of land. He blinked a few times, and flexed his hand where hers had been moments before. He didn’t say anything when she stopped the car. She didn’t expect him to. She didn’t expect him to expect this, either. The distant pillars of stone. The plots that went on as far as either of them could see. The souls they couldn’t see.
Really, it was the wrong kind of drive-in movie. The sick kind.
“Oh,” Akira said. Not like he’d been betrayed, but like he only vaguely understood.
The most he did was open her door for her, and wait for her to gather herself before holding out his hand. “Lead the way,” he said.
She didn’t take his hand, not because she didn’t want to, but because it wasn’t time yet. Wordlessly, with her mother’s envelope tucked in the pocket of her sweater and a bouquet in her arms, they walked side-by-side, touching the white stone of the entry as they passed.
There weren’t many people in the cemetery—or maybe it was just that the place was so big, and the visitors were so spread out, that it was difficult to see them all. It had been ages since she’d last visited, and if it was even possible, the place seemed bigger now than it had three years before.
Akira shuffled beside her, apparently unsure whether to study the bouquet or his own shoes, and the only time she reached for him was to tap his wrist, to lead him off the cobblestone path and toward the square of land her body seemed to remember better than her mind did.
The stone monument was caught somewhere between polished and dusty, missed but not necessarily neglected. Either some kind stranger had been benevolent enough to mind the plot in her absence, or Sae had been making trips she wasn’t aware of. In all fairness, it would explain why her sister had spent so much time away from home. (The case, too, but for once, she needed to not think about that.) Her family name was still there, the strokes she’d practiced over and over in elementary school chiseled and indelible before her, her mother’s name on one side, her father’s in the other. If she squinted, she thought she could see the flecks of red pain in her father’s name from when he was still alive.
Or maybe she was just hallucinating.
Or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
Makoto didn’t have to look up to know Akira’s gaze was drilling holes into her back. She couldn’t bear to meet his eyes anyway. Cellophane crinkled in her grasp, and her vision went a little blurry at the edges, but it wasn’t for tears or lack of them. “I…” She breathed in, and wished she didn’t sound so hollow. “I want you to meet my parents.”
Maybe he’d been expecting this the whole walk up. But it was the saying of the thing that made it real, made it unavoidable. Makoto didn’t have to squint or strain her ear to catch the breath that hitched in his throat.
He kept his distance while she kneeled and arranged the flowers into two separate pots on the altar—tiger lilies for her mother, amaryllis for her father. She’d forgotten to bring incense, but her father had always hated the smell of the stuff, do perhaps it was all the better in the end. Near-absently, she patted the empty patch of grass beside her and murmured the characters of their names for Akira to hear. To commit to his own memory. There was a postbox just between the flower pots, just above the nameplate. It had been empty for as long as she could remember it existing at all.
“Business cards,” she said, all too quiet, too afraid to wake eternal sleep. “I imagine most people who try to do the right thing aren’t very well-liked.” She didn’t have to imagine it when she’d lived it twice over, but neither of them had to say so.
Akira wasn’t desperate, or in any hurry, to kneel at her side, and Makoto found she much preferred it that way. He didn’t say much, either, and that was just as well, too. Instead he studied the monument like he might have done over at the gallery—which wasn’t entirely unsettling, but she’d had enough encounters with the stuff for death to feel less like an art form and more like the cold fist that was waiting to gather them. She wasn’t even sure if Okumura’s death had made him feel that way, or whether it only called his very validity into question.
“A person must mean a lot to you,” he finally said, “for you to bring them here.”
He wasn’t wrong, but she didn’t say so. Her fists tightened in her lap. “Once, when I was six, we were eating dinner, the three of us. I was being a little selfish, admittedly, and I wanted something off my sister’s plate. I tried to grab it with my chopsticks at the exact same moment she did…” She paused to swallow, hard. “I’ve never seen that kind of… horror, in her eyes. She dropped everything like I’d burned her. My father didn’t cry, but he looked like he might… sounded like he might… when he told me not to do that again.” She paused. “It wasn’t until years later, when we were picking up his bones, that I realized why.”
“Oh…” Akira said it with all the weight of, Oh, God. The word alone might have brought the sudden chill she felt. Or it could have been the season. November was always finicky.
Then he asked, “Is this because of tomorrow?”
Makoto only spared him a glance out of the corner of her eye. “Tomorrow?”
Akira shook his head. “Never mind.” Instead, he reached to brush his fingers over her knuckles.
Again, he wasn’t wrong. Again, she didn’t say so. Could she really be blamed when their time was running out? When, at any moment, her family—no, she—could be further splintered?
She spoke. “I wanted you to see where i came from.”
So did he, as he touched the amaryllis petals. “I’m honored.”
As he did, she took the envelope out of her pocket, waited for him to sit back, and laid it in his hands. “Read it,” she murmured. “I’d like you to.”
Akira hesitated, kept looking between her and the letter as if to ask if he were really worthy of it. If it wouldn’t be a breach of trust. It wasn’t until she nodded toward the envelope, one more time, that he fumbled it open and read it. He must have been frozen there long after he finished it, because it took him a while to fold the letter back into careful thirds, and his breath was ragged. More than she expected it to be. His hands brushed against hers when he gave the envelope back. “Have you written back yet?” he asked, almost numbly.
Makoto pressed her lips into a fim line. “I’m working on it.”
They stayed there, kneeling, thinking, until the gravel and dirt made a home in their clothes and the cold seeped into their blood and bones. Makoto made the first move to stand, partly because Akira seemed to be waiting for her mark. He followed her back down the path, an absent hand at the small of her back every so often, as if making sure she was still there. He eyes seemed to stop whenever she turned back to look at him, and a relieved smile would tug at the corner of his mouth, and it didn’t look like he was doing anything to fight it.
“What?” she said after the third or fourth time. “What is it?”
Akira only shook his head once more, pinched the fabric of her sweater between his fingers. “You look good in me,” he said.
They spent a while in the car with the overhead light on, warming their hands with their breaths and huddling into their clothes. Makoto’s nose was cold enough that if she wrinkled it, it seemed to right itself at a snail’s pace, like clay taking form. Sometimes Akira would rub her hands in his, breathe life and everything in him for her sake, which did more to make her stomach than anything else. “Are you doing this to make me like you, too?” she asked, the question hanging steam between them.
“No…” Akira pressed his thumbs to her palm, massaging the work from them. “This just feels like the right thing to do.”
“So you didn’t learn this from a book?”
He laughed, quietly. “No.”
“What about from one of those movies?” Damn, maybe she should have watched one of those instead. It was a residual thought that she pushed to the wayside—mostly because the sudden thought of her standing outside Leblanc with a boombox made her cringe. She’d bet money that in her case, a thirty-second ad would play instead of the actual music.
Akira raised a brow. “What did you learn?” he asked.
Makoto scowled. “Stupid things.” She paused, bit her lip, corrected herself. “Mostly stupid things.”
“What do you mean, ‘mostly?’”
Her hand flew to her pocket again, where the letter sat tucked away. And the things below it. “It wasn’t all bad.”
The silence from Akira sounded curious, enough for her hand to slip just beyond the envelope.
The last chapter she’d read—not to study, but simply on a whim—had a title like, “Something from the Heart,” or something to that effect, and had talked about the things someone could do for their partner to make them feel a little more loved. It mentioned something called “love languages”—which in all her research and studies she had never encountered or even heard of. A few moments on her phone pulled up more than a few results, which were simple enough to read through no matter where she was, and not nearly so embarrassing that she had to stuff the phone away as quickly as possible.
There were five of them, according to a couple of blog posts and a preview from a book she only half-wished she’d found in Shibuya. And the more Makoto had read through them, the more she felt like she’d failed them all, to some degree or another. She’d gone through them, almost like notes. Almost like a review.
Words of affirmation: She could barely get out a “hello” sometimes, let alone compliments or declarations of love or… anything that could really build him up. That was out of the question before a questions could even exist.
Acts of service: She couldn’t think of a time she’d done him any kind of service, unless she counted the times in Mementos or Sae’s Palace when she took the brunt of an attack that might have otherwise killed him—and it probably wouldn’t have been an act of service if it had killed her instead.
Quality time: She invested so much time into making sure it went well that she inevitably flubbed it somehow. So far, this was probably the only time that was going well, and it was ironic that of all things it was a trip to a cemetery.
Physical touch: Well, if she sometimes had trouble carrying conversation with him, then she definitely had trouble making contact with him. How long had it taken him to kiss him properly again? A month? How pathetic was that?
Gifts: The only one left. Surprisingly, it… wasn’t so bad. She’d gotten him flowers once. She’d made him donuts once. Maybe she had a grasp on something there. But it didn’t feel like the language she wanted to speak in the end, and it was still only one out of five, and it still felt like Akira had mastered them all already.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t try. She was on the uptake. Or trying to be. She could at least act like it.
When Makoto pulled her hand out of her pocket again, two beaded bracelets were clasped around her fingers, each of them with a small crown fixed in the middle. Black beads and a black crown on one. White marble and a gold crown in the other. They shined a little in the overhead light when she turned them this was and that. Sure, there was a moment when she considered hiding them away again, pretending she’d never gotten them in the first place. But it was fleeting, and with a trembling hand she plucked the black bracelet and held it out over the center console.
Akira stared at the bracelet, then at her. He pointed to himself, and she nodded, shakily. “I’m still learning,” she said. “And I don’t speak this very well. But I want to.”
He barely hesitated; he slid the bracelet on, turned his wrist to admire it, and rested his hands in his lap. “What…” he said. Stopped. Started again. “What do you want to speak?”
“Love.” Maybe he hadn’t studied this. Maybe it came to him so naturally, so fluently. Where had he learned it, then? Whens he only said the word, it weighed heavy on her tongue and her heart, like something had cracked open in her chest for him to scrutinize. To judge. “I’m sorry the way I’ve done so, the way I’ve—loved—you, has been so… quiet. And subtle.”
He didn’t judge. He didn’t so much as examine her. His eyes softened, and his fingers caught on the black beads. “It’s not your fault we’re taught to expect louder things.”
For a while, Makoto didn’t know what to say, until Akira spoke again. “I like the way you love me,” he said. “It’s gentle. It doesn’t impose.” He was playing with his hands now, sometimes feeling the texture of the beads, sometimes running his fingers along the dashboard. She took it as a sign to start the car, slide her own bracelet on—let it sit above the cuff of her sleeve. When he looked to her again, he was blushing a little, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “How do you want to speak it?” he asked. “How do you want to love me?”
The question alone gripped her heart and twisted, cracked it like a glowstick, where warmth bled instead of light. “I…” She gathered her words. Perhaps in some other life, or some other universe, she could have written him an entire dissertation or spoken for minutes on end, of all the things she thought about. All the things she wanted to do. Maybe Queen would have been able to do it, confidence humming like the motorcycle underneath her. But she was Makoto now, and Makoto was just a girl with a letter in her pocket and a motorcycle in her soul and a boyfriend in the passenger seat.
But that was enough.
“Like this,” she said, gesturing vaguely between them. “And this—” She pointed toward his bracelet, then brushed her fingers along her lips—“And like this, too.”
Akira’s eyes sparkled. “And how else?”
Blood pounded between Makoto’s ears, and for a moment she had to grip the hem of her skirt to calm herself. With a deep breath and a hard swallow, she reached up to switch off the overhead light. A hand curled itself into the front of his shirt, pulled him close, slow but purposeful. She could barely see him in the dark, but she felt the sharp breath he drew in, the presence of his hands on the center console and the dashboard. She didn’t know what had possessed her to do this—so careful and yet so sudden. She only knew that she had the urge to. That she would regret it deeply if the window of opportunity closed on her. “Like this,” she whispered, and the space between them was enough to choke her.
When Akira breathed out again, it sounded more like a shudder. Makoto wondered if he could feel everything up to his scalp, too. If enough water had built up behind whatever dam of impulse control he’d fashioned. “Especially like this?” he asked.
Her grip tightened. Perhaps there was enough water for her, too. Or perhaps this was enough, but only just. “Yes,” she murmured, and barely stiffened when his hand found its way to her back again. There was no umbrella to drop. No beach. No river to fall into. No seatbelt to choke them. “Yes, especially like this.”